Laura K. Field’s work in political theory didn’t used to focus on today’s political arena, but when prominent conservative intellectuals started backing the authoritarian, populist messages of Donald Trump in 2016, she began looking into the intellectual roots of conservative thinkers. She joins Geoff Kabaservice to discuss how today’s “reactionary conservatives” have rejected liberal democratic principles (after mischaracterizing the values of liberal democracy), and breaks down how they’ve combined the ideas of Aristotle, Leo Strauss, and others, as well as a scepticism of Democratic institutions to develop the line of thinking that characterizes the Intellectual Right today. 

Laura K. Field: This has tipped into something very resistant to any kind of authority and government, combined with an embrace of strong-man rule. So it’s kind of paradoxical and full of contradictions.

Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to The Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m very happy to be joined today by Laura K. Field. She is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a scholar in residence at American University. Welcome, Laura!

Laura K. Field: Thanks, Geoff. Thanks for having me.

Geoff Kabaservice: Thanks for being here. Laura, I want to focus this discussion on your hard-hitting and comprehensive dissection of the Claremont Institute that appeared recently in The Bulwark under the title, “What the Hell Happened to the Claremont Institute?” But before that, I’d love to hear more about how you came to your current intellectual and political outlook. Can you tell me something about your origins and academic interests?

Laura K. Field: Sure, Geoff. I am a political theorist by training and so my background is pretty bookish. For a long time I was pretty apolitical, just writing articles about obscure philosophers, in some instances. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Rousseau and Nietzsche and their rhetoric. That in some ways is connected to what I’m up to now. But I started writing about the intellectual right a few years ago. I think, like a lot of people, I was pretty alarmed by the election of Donald Trump and surprised at how the conservative intellectuals I knew as well as the party responded to Trump. Then I witnessed as intellectuals on the right, in some instances, threw their support directly behind Trump and became enamored of Trump and defenders of Trump. So I watched that in shock. And then many also just were clearly gladdened by the extent to which Trump was able to explode the establishment and end the old consensus, even if they weren’t throwing their weight behind him explicitly.

I watched that and thought that I had some things to say about it. The critiques of liberalism like Patrick Deneen’s work, I started reading some of that and just trying to get a better understanding of where some of these people were coming from and what they were trying to achieve, what their end game was and what they were really envisioning for the American future —because I was just so surprised that they would be willing to back Trump or at least not say anything against him. So that got me started and I’ve been doing work in that vein for a couple of years now, partly through the Niskanen Center (as you know) and then with The Bulwark and some other sites.

Geoff Kabaservice: Did you grow up in Canada?

Laura K. Field: I did, yes. Can you hear it?

Geoff Kabaservice: A little bit. You went to undergrad…

Laura K. Field: I went to the University of Alberta as an undergrad. I did a master’s degree there as well. Then I did my doctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin.

Geoff Kabaservice: Did you study political theory at the level of the undergraduate in Alberta?

Laura K. Field: Yeah, I did. I started off as a science student. I think I was three years into my program when… I also was taking political science because I was very interested; I was torn between the two. I was in my third year, maybe, when I was forced to take this political theory course, a full-year course in the canonical thinkers of political philosophy. It was just a wild course with a wonderful lecturer or teacher. He just gave these tremendous lectures. I was really taken by that. The rest is history. I abandoned my science courses, my pre-med ambitions — much to my family’s chagrin, I think.

Geoff Kabaservice: What did you study at the University of Texas?

Laura K. Field: I studied political philosophy and public law. Most of my courses were in political theory and then constitutional law, comparative public law. And then I wrote exclusively in political philosophy. My work was on Rousseau and Nietzsche, primarily.

Geoff Kabaservice: Were there any particular professors at the University of Texas who were particularly influential for you?

Laura K. Field: Oh, that’s a complicated question. I had a lot of great teachers there. My own supervisor was Thomas Pangle. I worked with several… I don’t know if it’s worth listing these people… I think that I’ve always had pretty big differences with some of the people on my dissertation committee and the people I worked with closely, but I also got to study public law with Jeff Tulis and Gary Jacobson and some other folks at Texas. That was really beneficial to me because it just made my thinking about politics more concrete and so added a different dimension. I still am enamored of political philosophy and theory. I still wrote on Rousseau and Nietzsche, and my own work still focused on these other texts. But I got to study constitutional law quite deeply with some other people at Texas.

Geoff Kabaservice: My apologies if this sounds a bit too grand, but when did you decide that you wanted to communicate to the public ideas about intellectuals and political theory — versus directing most of your attention towards students and undergraduate teaching, let’s say?

Laura K. Field: Well, that’s a good question too. It wasn’t even so much a decision that I wanted to write for big audiences. I ended up bouncing around a little bit, as so many people do now in academia, at different jobs. I had a position I liked a lot at American University in the School of International Service. I have great colleagues there and great friends there and it was a good job, but I really didn’t have any time for writing. That was really making me crazy. It wasn’t a great fit in terms of the teaching because I was just always teaching quite outside my area. I got kind of burnt out by that and just really missed writing. I stepped away from that knowing that I really just wanted to do a lot more writing. I knew that academic writing sometimes really frustrated me, not so much because of the reach — though maybe that’s part of it — just the style.

I came around eventually. I’m still sort of on the fence about this because I love academic writing and work too. But I have always had this thought that a lot of journalistic writing that I see out there is just more important than academic writing — partly because it has a bigger impact and I think it’s just stylistically more interesting. We could go on… There were a lot of factors… Partly it was the election, and feeling I had something to contribute that maybe other people weren’t doing, that guided my choices when I started doing more of this writing. But it was a mix of factors.

Geoff Kabaservice: The first article you wrote that brought you to my attention was your October 2019 Bulwark piece, “What the Reactionary Right Gets Dead Wrong About Modern Liberal Democracy.” In that piece you wrote about what you called the Reocons — a term, I’m sorry to say, that hasn’t really caught on…

Laura K. Field: It didn’t stick. It’s a bit silly.

Geoff Kabaservice: …but the reactionary conservatives who were really glad to see Trump demolishing this conservative establishment and maybe who were looking forward to the end of American liberal democracy as well. You particularly focused on Patrick Deneen and his book Why Liberalism Failed, but you also brought in people like Sohrab Ahmari and Michael Anton. How did that piece come about?

Laura K. Field: Well, I was really frustrated by some of the ways in which they characterized liberalism.

Geoff Kabaservice: These authors, you mean?

Laura K. Field: These authors, yes. They often characterized the liberal order — and they don’t mean obviously liberals and leftists, though there’s a dangerous overlap of terms there; they mean modern liberal democracy. They are constantly talking about how it’s this value-neutral space that has no real moral valence and is just hollow and leads to nihilism and social atrophy and deracination, and at the same time talking about it as if it’s just full of moral fanatics who are self-righteously woke and all the rest of it and who are unhinged. There’s all these contradictions there. I really wanted to just point out that no, liberal democracy is complicated but it does stand for things, for specific values and norms that have inherent worth and meaning.

It’s true that a lot of modern liberal theory isn’t comfortable speaking in those terms and doesn’t really… It is complicated. There are reasons why we have a separation between the church and state and have the First Amendment. But I think that it’s a real misunderstanding to think that liberalism doesn’t have a moral valence. I think that it’s a real weakness of our contemporary discourse to not be more upfront about that. Mostly I was just pissed off at these guys because they should know better. I think they do know better. It’s just a talking point for them. I think it’s a little dishonest theoretically because it’s an old talking point from the ’70s and ’80s about liberal nihilism and social — that liberals don’t have real values. I just found it so tiresome.

That’s what inspired that piece. I concluded it with a little defense of what I take to be some of the modern, some of the values that are latent within liberal democracy. But there’s a lot more work to be done there. I’d kind of like to go back to some of that because I think that’s what we need: a more upfront discussion of the meaning of liberal democracy and what it stands for.

Geoff Kabaservice: Those critics of liberal democracy came from different places, so to speak, in the conservative world. Patrick Deneen, I think, is a professor at Notre Dame. Sohrab Ahmari is the [op-ed] editor of the New York Post. There’s a certain Catholic dimension, of course, to a lot of the criticism of modern liberalism that also surfaces in the works of, let’s say, Adrian Vermeule and integralism at Harvard. But Michael Anton was the representative in that first article from the Claremont Institute. Can you just tell us what the Claremont Institute is?

Laura K. Field: Sure. That’s quite correct. These are quite different contingents on what you might call the new-right intellectual world. Michael Anton is affiliated with the Claremont Institute and the Claremont Institute has supported his work in the Trump years. The Institute is a conservative think tank that was founded in 1979 by students, for students of Harry Jaffa, who was a prominent Lincoln scholar and of the Straussian school, which your listeners may or may not be familiar with. They devoted this think tank to defending the founding principles of the United States as they are expressed in the Declaration. They, I think, see themselves as people who stand for and defend a certain ideal of statesmanship in the United States.

A lot of their work has to do with the founding, with Lincoln, and then just with different kinds of ideas about leadership. They also run a series of mentorship programs and conferences for up-and-coming writers and lawyers and academics through different fellowship programs as a way of influencing political culture. They have, I think, been quite influential. They run a couple of different journals. This long piece that we’re working our way towards gives some of this background as well. They run a pretty notable publication called the Claremont Review of Books that has always been a place where a lot of conservatives would go to publish their book reviews and different kinds of long-form articles.

Geoff Kabaservice: It’s sort of a conservative equivalent of the New York Review of Books, right?

Laura K. Field: I think, yes.

Geoff Kabaservice: That’s their aspiration.

Laura K. Field: That’s their aspiration. I don’t want to be too… I think you might have a better sense, Geoff, than I do of exactly how that fits in the conservative imagination. I certainly read the Claremont Review of Books for a few years once in a while, but I’m not someone who has followed this stuff especially closely — the Claremont folks — because I for a long time have been very skeptical of their way of thinking and kind of repulsed by it, to be perfectly frank. I’m pretty interested in this. My own world does butt up against that world, and I do know some of the people in the sidelines. I don’t know any of the main figureheads here personally, but I do know some of the other people in the other parts of the institution or at least did in the past — some old friends and stuff.

Geoff Kabaservice: My literally dozens of listeners don’t usually require a lot by way of training wheels when it comes to getting into these abstruse intellectual discussions. But I actually think, in this case, it would be worth going back to just be clear about some of the grounds here. So who was Leo Strauss and what is Straussianism?

Laura K. Field: Well, Leo Strauss was a Jewish-American political thinker, an émigré from Germany who fled Germany for the United States and was quite a prominent intellectual here. He studied in Germany, he did very well as a young man in school; he studied with Heidegger and Gadamer, I believe. He came to the United States and was hugely influential in conservative circles and in the academic world as well. I would credit him with reviving an interest in the classics that was substantive, a more substantive interest in ancient political philosophy and taking the ancient way of looking at the world seriously on its own grounds, and then inspiring interest in the idea of natural rights.

He’s known for a certain approach to texts which situates them historically in terms of their cultural milieu in a particular way that… He paid attention to how a given author might write basically esoterically for different audiences because they might face persecution from censors and other critics. So they might write in a coded way, partly because they might be persecuted for what they truly believe, and so to communicate that way they would take caution. But partly also just as a pedagogical maneuver so that they’re not totally upfront about everything that they’re thinking so that the reader has to engage in a deeper way with a given text. Anyway, that’s all longer background but I think it’s connected to some of what we might get to. Anyway, Strauss influenced all kinds of people. Allan Bloom might be his most famous student, but then you get into the neo-cons… There were a lot of articles written about the Straussians under Bush and some of the influence that they had.

Geoff Kabaservice: You mentioned Harry Jaffa. I believe Jaffa was one of Strauss’s first graduate students when Strauss was teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York City. But Strauss is much more associated with the University of Chicago, where he taught Bloom and people like Walter Berns who became very influential in their own right as scholars and, I guess, disseminators of modern conservatism as well.

Laura K. Field: Yes, I think that’s right.

Geoff Kabaservice: So what is the difference between East Coast Straussianism and West Coast Straussianism?

Laura K. Field: Well, I’d say the West Coast Straussians have long been interested in specifically the conditions… I think, first of all, they are quite politically active and they’re interested in the American founding and the American regime as something particularly noble and as this historically novel and fortuitous and exceptional creation. That’s in some ways unobjectionable, but in some ways they’ve really gone quite far to hype up this position and defend this idea of the exceptionalism of the American founding, and promoting that idea and teaching new generations of young students in a pretty one-sided way, I would say — all of the reasons why we should admire the American founding and promote a particular understanding of the American founding.

That’s been their bread and butter, but not quite as dynamically as they are right now. But that’s been, I think, what the West Coast Straussians has been mostly known for. Their idea of the history here is that there’s a perfect combination of ancient rationalism and Judeo-Christian values that came together in the American Constitution, and that that’s something extremely precious and rare to hold onto, that it’s this perfect political institution. That’s quite different… And they’re quite devoted to peddling that idea in the political sphere. That’s quite different from the East Coast Straussians. In a way, I’m too close to this thing, Geoff, and too far from it to really be able to do this quickly. There are a lot of books you can read about these differences and how this all gets unpacked. I just don’t read those books but I’m pretty intuitively familiar with this.

But anyhow, East Coast Straussians are the ones I’m more familiar with. I think that they take a bit more dispassionate look at politics. I think that a lot of them take themselves to be above the political fray, to be honest. They read philosophy texts and they believe deeply in the meaning of this study. They’re very learned but they don’t get so involved in political matters, except for off… Sometimes they’ll get involved to defend liberal democracy. My dissertation supervisor wrote a book called The Ennobling of Democracy a long time ago. That is definitely a sincere interest in liberal democracy and the defense of that. But I think that it takes different forms and a lot of the people who are currently known as East Coast Straussians really have taken a step back from politics.

Geoff Kabaservice: The very reductive version that I remember learning was that the West Coast Straussians in some sense believe that the founding of the United States was a real representation of almost an Aristotelian political ideal; the founders aimed high and they hit their goal. Whereas the East Coasters thought that the founding was a worthy but imperfect sally at that ideal — “solid but low,” as they say.

Laura K. Field: That’s about right. I would just add that I think the East Coasters are more skeptical about the possibility of having something like a true Aristotelian founding or any true political founding that has the qualities that the West Coast Straussians want to attribute to the American founding. I think that they’re quite concerned about that kind of effort, the idea that you could have a perfect founding that solved all of these complex contradictions. I think they would say that’s quite a dangerous thing to believe in because it’s a perfectionism in politics that politics doesn’t grant us. And so there’s a danger there. I think you’re exactly right about the essential difference there between the West Coast and the East Coast Straussians. But the East Coast version I think sometimes tips into cynicism about politics more generally while the West Coast version I think trips into a kind of delusional idealism.

Geoff Kabaservice: I think this is an important question because although by no means are most prominent American conservatives described as Straussian, there is this fault line that to some extent determines who went which way when Trump came along. If I was going to be, again, really reductive here, I would say that the West Coast Straussians had this obsession with the administrative state and its threat to individual governance, and also this belief in strong leaders, great men. Whereas the East Coast Straussians were more focused on institutions and, I guess, institutional architecture like the Constitution.

Therefore it seems to me that East Coast Straussian-influenced people like Bill Kristol of The Bulwark, like Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, were more likely to see Trump as a threat to constitutional arrangements and stability in the society. Whereas a lot of the West Coast Straussians seemed to be primed to accept Trump as the giant who would slay political correctness and the administrative state — and, again, this great leader that they had been reading the ancients and awaiting his arrival, so to speak, on the present scene.

Laura K. Field: I think that’s right. I’ve been thinking about this as well. I guess one maybe subtlety here, but that’s a through-line among all the Straussians, is that I think that the West Coasters admired the strongman statesmanship so much. But I think that coupled with that is still this very Straussian, above-it-all, holier-than-thou approach to politics that comes together in their acceptance of Trump. I think you see that with someone like Anton today and with a lot of these guys where there’s a… In a way, there is a latent contempt for politics, I think, in some of these guys that allows them to really not care who the vehicle is for their actual political plans or their political projects. They just sort of see themselves…

There’s a tendency to a real arrogance and self-aggrandizement among… That’s true, I would say, among a lot of Straussians but it manifests in different ways through the various contingencies and the various schools. I do have a lot of respect for a lot of Straussian stuff, so I don’t mean to be… But I do think that’s the truth, that it’s laced with this superiority complex.

Geoff Kabaservice: I suppose we should qualify some of what we’re saying here. Not every West Coast Straussian lives on the West Coast or has hung out there, and not every East Coast Straussian is necessarily in the East. Not every West Coast Straussian will believe the same things about Trump. There’s even a diversity of opinion at Claremont itself. But I do think you had it right — this is a phrase from your essay, which is that “rather than concentrate on policy, like many of the think tanks, The Claremont Institute teaches the principles and ideas that shape policy over time.” I think that is a fairly important distinction.

Laura K. Field: Yeah, absolutely. This is a group who focuses on publishing splashy sorts of articles. And then we haven’t gotten to this yet but they have their journal and then they’ve got an online presence now as well and a blog that publishes a lot more stuff. They have their authors and they have these fellows that they bring through their programs, so there’s an educative pedagogical effort. But these are not people who are thinking through policy options very carefully or presenting alternatives to Obamacare or anything substantive like that. I think it’s hard to know what to make of that.

It couples with their anti-administrative-state stance and their general anti-government position on a lot of things. It makes sense for them. In a way, I think that they understand something that sometimes the left doesn’t, which is something about the power of this kind of cultural effort and the power of this… Their approach, it’s sort of shallow, but I think that the effort to shape culture, their concerted deliberate effort in that direction, has surprising effects.

Geoff Kabaservice: I have to admit that when I was studying political history, I didn’t pay that much attention to political philosophy. I tended to think of it as impractical and abstruse. I also found it very hard to fit the Straussians of whatever variety into the history of conservatism writ large, because Bill Buckley at the National Review was trying to come up with a fusionist synthesis of traditionalists and libertarians and anti-communists. None of those quite described the Straussians, although you can find people with elements of all of the above. I frankly used to think that Buckley was just looking for intellectual authority when he would bring the Straussians into National Review, because they could point back to longstanding conservative traditions both at the level of the ancients as well as more recent thinkers.

But I do think that recent times have shown that there’s a lot of truth to that quote by Keynes, which I always forget, but something to the effect that political philosophers and economists are actually a lot more important than people think because they really do shape the modern world. Even “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite immune from any intellectual influence, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” I do think it is important to look at these people even if, as you point out in your article, they didn’t influence Trump. If anything, they seem to have been Trumpified by his term in office.

Laura K. Field: I think there’s a bit of a paradox here in terms of… I’m genuinely torn about how much political philosophy matters in some respects in the world. This is one of those cases where you just see, “Well, no, whatever principles or theories they have don’t actually mean anything to them because look at what they’re up to.” I think it’s a complicated case here where you see how much interests matter, and more vulgar things: who knows how much money they’re raking in because of these choices or how that all works and from whom and what’s all driving it? I think that’s one of the reasons I’m genuinely interested in this. But it’s also not because I fully think that these guys in particular have a… Well, it’s certainly not a healthy understanding, but I’m not sure at even the depth of their understanding of what they’re up to, if that makes sense, Geoff.

Geoff Kabaservice: It does. Since you’ve mentioned that Claremont Institute was founded by disciples of Harry Jaffa, it’s worth asking who was Harry Jaffa?

Laura K. Field: Well, he was, I guess, a student of Strauss and a very serious Lincoln scholar.

Geoff Kabaservice: He’s probably best known for his book The Crisis of the House Divided.

Laura K. Field: The Crisis of the House Divided, yeah. He wrote a couple others as well that I think were all pretty well-regarded. I think that then his legacy gets a little more complicated because… Work on Lincoln was novel, and he looked at the Lincoln-Douglas debates in particular and really tried to understand in a Straussian way the details of these exchanges and the deep thinking that informs them and the rhetoric that was involved. I think he elevated that debate in a new way and deepened people’s understanding of the intellectual significance of Lincoln.

Geoff Kabaservice: Again, as a political historian, the way in which people in my world know Harry Jaffa is not really as a scholar or a Straussian but as somebody who inserted some critical lines into Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican presidential convention. That of course was when Goldwater somewhat infamously declared that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” And you know, there are intellectually defensible rationales for saying that. But in the political context of 1964 and specifically that convention, what this came across as was a defense of the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan and their right to push this extremely divisive version of Americanism as against the Democrats and really change in America more generally.

Geoff Kabaservice: I wonder if some sort of, how to put it, deeply flawed grasp of politics was not baked into West Coast Straussians from the beginning? Because Goldwater, by going so much out on a limb, under the influence of Jaffa and others, allowed Lyndon Johnson to win in a landslide, allowed Republicans to be wiped out from the top to the bottom of the ticket, which really paved the way for the Great Society and what was in effect a second New Deal. And although you can claim that this, in turn, eventually in the fullness of time led to Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 and conservatism’s resurgence, I think this also just shows, again, a really impractical intellectual approach to politics.

Laura K. Field: I think one thing I struggle with in reading through these writers and trying to sort through the Claremont world is just their (I hope) deep ignorance about racism and some of these racial issues because it’s really hard to get a handle on… Some of it is so vicious. And the more I read or learn about some of these different aspects of the particular scholars like Jaffa and what you just described, it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt with some of this stuff. Do they really not understand what they’re fomenting, what they’re sidling right up next to, what they’re promoting and the practical impacts of some of the ways in which they write and some of the stuff they publish?

I don’t know what to do with that. I honestly… It’s a real question for me. I think that at this point it’s inexcusable to be so ignorant about the ways in which your words resonate and the racial tinge to so much of this. I think it’s really troubling. And there’s no real excuse for a group like that to be so head-in-the-sand ignorant about this stuff. They would say, “We’re not. You’re just woke crazy.” But I just think they’re on the wrong side of it.

Geoff Kabaservice: It’s going to be very interesting to see what the long-term impact of your article will be. Because, in effect, you’ve thrown a very big rock into this particular pond. As you pointed out, I guess, to cite your conclusion at this point, Claremont hoped it would influence Trump but instead Claremont, as you put, was remade in Trump’s image. It became nativist, racist, illiberal, prone to conspiracy theories, and even now is post-truth and anti-democracy on some level. I guess the question is going to be whether scholars who happened to be of a conservative bent but haven’t really been deeply identified with Claremont or West Coast Straussianism are going to continue to publish in the Claremont Review of Books, or whether they will feel it is tainted by this Trumpism — and whether also some of the people who have been funding Claremont will continue to do so.

In terms of trying to illuminate Claremont’s path toward Trump, to me there were three big indicators in 2016 that suggested what was to come. The first of them was that piece that appeared in the spring of 2016 called “Scholars and Writers for Trump.” Although not every signatory to that list was a Claremont person, a lot of very influential and central Claremont figures were on there including particularly Charles Kesler — who has been, I guess, the editor-in-chief of the Claremont Review of Books since its founding in 2000 — Larry Arnn (who’s now the president of Hillsdale College), Hadley Arkes, John Eastman, a number of other people. 

Then Charles Kesler, in the spring of 2016 issue of the CRB, published a piece called “Trump and the Conservative Cause.” He did the usual Keslerian hemming and hawing about some of Trump’s defects — the fact that he wasn’t actually a lifelong conservative or Republican. But he really glammed onto Trump’s opposition to political correctness and praised what he saw as his energy and toughness and strength, which again is going back to the West Coast Straussian idea of the ideal strong chief executive leader. 

Then of course was the famous Michael Anton piece, published under his pseudonym, Publius Decius Mus, called “The Flight 93 Election.” Obviously you’ve talked about this with Charlie Sykes on his podcast as well as with The Bulwark folks on that livestream. Just the framing of “The Flight 93 Election” really is a divisive and awful way of looking at American society. If you honestly believe that Democrats are terrorists who are about to destroy the United States utterly — it’s almost like that in and of itself should be disqualifying if you’re trying to actually contribute something to a political dialogue.

Laura K. Field: I think that’s what I find most deeply disturbing when I think about these guys. It’s not just Michael Anton. I think you’re right to point to those other pieces. Then I think that if you look at Charles Kesler’s new book, which is called Crisis of the Two Constitutions, it plays on these other ideas that reach back in the American tradition, and the idea that a house divided cannot stand.

Geoff Kabaservice: Do you see Kesler as the central figure in the Claremont world?

Laura K. Field: I don’t exactly know. He runs the Claremont Review of Books, so I think he’s probably the most well-respected. There’s also Christopher Caldwell. He’s not central in the operating of that place, I don’t think, but he’s a pretty highly regarded intellectual. He’s got an op-ed out today in the New York Times about how there wasn’t really a plan for a Trump coup, which I haven’t dug into it carefully… But I just think: The nerve of these people! Anyhow. I don’t know about Charles Kesler, but I think he is probably the intellectual centerpiece of the institution. His book has this very… There’s a certain genteel veneer to the book and again, the hemming and hawing. But its premise is that there’s two Americas, two constitutional principles at play. One is the founders’ constitution and the other is this progressive constitution. These things, they can’t stand together. There’s no possible reconciliation between these two outlooks.

That is very much of a piece with Anton’s far more rhetorically shrill and grotesque way of writing. It’s very much of a piece with a lot of the stuff that they have on the ugly underbelly of their blogs and everything. I think Kesler is more careful, but I think it’s a very weird way to describe contemporary America. You’ve got Michael Anton publishing in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books pontificating about the possibility or this cultural clash and potential civil war between Texas and California, where California is the progressive world and Texas is the real America.

You have this stuff… They’ve got a new institution devoted to the American Way of Life where they talk about their hatred for multiculturalism, that it’s a war against multiculturalism. I just think it’s a very perverse way for serious people to speak about this country, especially while they appeal to someone like Aristotle in the same breath and this idea of America being a mixed regime. The idea that there isn’t room for Democrats in the American regime or in the American Constitution, and that’s it’s all or nothing in the way they want it to be… I guess it’s consistent with their idea of the American founding and their puritanical attachment to a very specific moment in American history — which was complicated by the Civil War and the Civil War amendments, so I don’t even understand that. But their complete rejection of one of the actual parties in this country and half the population of this country, I just think it’s extremely disturbing and bizarre.

Geoff Kabaservice: Kesler’s book cover shows a cartoon of a knight, which is the “real” Constitution, about to slay a dragon called “The Living Constitution” in front of the Capitol. His book came out in February of this year, but nonetheless it has a little bit of an uncomfortable symbolism after the January 6th invasion of the Capitol by those who thought they were defending real America…

Laura K. Field: By their side, yeah.

Geoff Kabaservice: Although Kesler, I think, is a more subtle thinker — in the sense that he’s talking about the founding constitution versus the progressive constitution, not quite saying that the progressive constitution is un-American but at least saying there is real tension between them and wanting the “real Constitution” as he sees it to come to the fore — this has a lot of similarities to more disturbing versions of the same story.

Christopher Caldwell, who once was at The Weekly Standard but now is with the Claremont Review of Books, published his book on The Age of Entitlement which basically concludes that the Constitution has been abolished by civil rights laws of the 1960s. And Republicans owe it to their constitutional fidelity to abolish those protections that were extended to African-Americans and other minorities.

And then in super-crude form this gets into the kind of people who you were writing about in your piece, who basically are saying that there are Americans (who voted for Donald Trump) and un-Americans (who voted for Biden). This gets into, as you say, really just outright racism in the form of people like Darren Beattie and Glenn Ellmers.

Laura K. Field: I think that it’s easy for the figureheads to sidestep some of this and pretend that they don’t really stand by Anton or Ellmers or some of the more radical language that these others use. But it is not inconsistent with their own ways of understanding American politics. I think there is some real, substantive similarity there.

Geoff Kabaservice: I hope I’m not overly psychoanalyzing you here, Laura, but there does seem to be a sense in your piece that you are especially disappointed with Claremont because although plenty of conservative publications and conservative politicians went over to Trump, Claremont should have known better. As you put it in your piece, “That Claremont has been unparalleled in its intellectual submission to Trumpism should give us pause. After all, in some respects, the Claremont crowd is precisely the sort who should have known better: deeply read in political philosophy and history and familiar with the many warning signs that Trump would be a damaging and divisive president. There was also a sense, however, in which the Claremont crowd’s submission to Trump was the most predictable thing in the world, the simple culmination of a political theory rooted in jingoism and denial.”

Laura K. Field: Well, it’s hard to figure these things out in oneself, Geoff. But I think that I’m trying to be, I think in that line… I don’t know. I don’t feel that shocked. I guess on some level, I’m personally shocked because I know some people who still defend that institution. There are some people I’ve known since like elementary school, a couple… There’s a personal angle there. Because I’ve just met some of these people, so that’s always really weird. But I think the truth is more in the latter part of what you read, where it seemed kind of predictable in a way. I’m still sort of shocked that it’s happened like this, but I don’t think that… That institution has not been something that I’ve admired politically, ever. I don’t like the way they talk about politics and I don’t like their interventions in politics.

You can read the Claremont Review of Books… I think maybe 15 years ago I would have picked it up, or 10 maybe, and thought, “There’s a well-written review of a book that you might not see reviewed elsewhere that’s worth reading.” Even today, maybe there’s some of that going on, where there’s some value there with some of the authors. But as a general way of understanding American politics, it’s not. I don’t have a ton of admiration for that kind of jingoism or hagiography. I don’t know, I find it kind of juvenile.

Geoff Kabaservice: There is a serious intellectual component to this debate, though, that actually goes back to that East Coast/West Coast Straussian split that you referred to. Because again, pretty close to the beginning of your piece, you wrote that “For Claremont, abstract ideals and arguments take precedence over reality and facts on the ground. The glories of the founding ideals eclipse the historical facts of racist brutality and bondage, excuse the injustices and inequalities of today, and even justify extraordinary political extremism.”

So this is kind of a question about the nature of America, in some sense. And something that was just a sort of footnote in your piece was that you linked to a piece from 1985 in National Review by Thomas Pangle, who was your teacher at the University of Texas. And his criticism of Harry Jaffa (and I guess all of the West Coast Straussians) was again, that they were just kind of whitewashing American history to the exclusion of real patriotism.

There was a quote that I was struck by in that National Review piece that Pangle wrote: “The questioning of America is not un-American. It is part of the very core of what it means to be an American.” I think, again, there’s a problem where the West Coast Straussians are interpreting any criticism of them, any criticism of the founding, to be unpatriotic. Whereas in a broad sense I think an uncritical view of that founding is unpatriotic, or at least unrealistic and un-American in the sense of not reflecting the breadth and reality of the American experience.

Laura K. Field: I think on some other level too the American founding is genuinely committed to freedom. I think that means freedom of thought and intellectual freedom to challenge and question things: question authority, question traditions, question the intellectual inheritances that we have. I think there’s some real resistance to that genuine commitment of the American founding. I don’t even think it makes a ton of sense to speak of the sort of the founding as embodying a single sort of set of principles. But it seems pretty clear that that kind of freedom, it’s got to include intellectual freedom.

I think they’re sort of really resistant to that kind of genuine questioning. I think that’s because they’re trying to reconcile a kind of moral founding and an intellectual founding. They’re trying to reconcile too many things into one sort of stagnant set of beliefs, and so it’s too rigid and confined an understanding. And they seem very wedded to that, so it doesn’t allow for this kind of questioning.

Geoff Kabaservice: Part of what it is to be a moderate in this moment is to be uncomfortable with what seems to be coming at you from both sides. A lot of the Claremont people supported and to some extent served on the 1776 Commission that Trump had set up, which is supposed to be in its way a response to the 1619 Project of the New York Times. And I’ve got to tell you, I’m not comfortable with either of those interpretations of American history. I’m not comfortable with the Nikole Hannah-Jones idea that America’s true founding is with 1619 and slavery, and that defines its essence rather than liberal democracy or the ideals of the Declaration. And I’m not comfortable with the 1776 Commission’s view that slavery is sort of a blip to be excused, that racism ended in 1965, and that America is the best country that ever existed, and that criticizing it is un-American. Yet I don’t see anything in between those that really has a lot of intellectual prominence at this moment.

Laura K. Field: Well, I would put it like this. I think that we’re not meant to take any one of these positions wholesale. I think there’s a real difference between Nikole Hannah-Jones and the writers and editors at the New York Times coming out with one special edition of a magazine (and some supplementary curriculum material) to kind of throw that into the public discourse and say, “Here’s our gambit. This is our view of this thing or our new contribution to what is obviously an ongoing, unfolding…” There’s a pretty big difference between that and then the government coming up with a document that they think should be the doctrine of America, with the 1776 Commission a sort of official doctrine.

I think those are kind of different things. I agree with you, I don’t think that either one should be taken as any kind of whole perspective. I think that what we’re looking at is different articulations of a pretty massive, complicated thing that’s going to always be interpreted and changing. And we’ll get closer, more comprehensive perspectives if we read different voices. But I guess I see the 1619 Project as sort of one effort to shake it up against the background of a sort of existing, dominant set of understandings. Do you know what I mean, Geoff?

I don’t think they were trying to replace… There were some moments where they certainly pitched it as like, “This is going to be the new definitive lesson,” on Twitter or whatever. I think if you look at it… This is probably taking us a bit far afield, but I think that they were trying to contribute to sort of the discourse, against a discourse that already existed.

Geoff Kabaservice: I’m curious to know what kind of responses you’ve received to your “What the Hell Happened to the Claremont Institute” piece. Has there been praise, has there been abuse, have there been any interesting responses from Claremont itself?

Laura K. Field: Well, I’ve gotten some really, really good feedback. Quite a lot of… Part of me, I was thinking in my head that I feel a little bit like Rod Dreher or Bari Weiss or whoever, because I have this inbox now where I’ve got all these notes from people who want to dish on Claremont. That’s been interesting. I’ve gotten a lot of really interesting feedback from people who think… a lot of very kind emails, honestly, from people who have appreciated it. And several emails from people who have been close to that institution and who had more to add, or who sort of wanted to refine what I was saying and broaden my understanding. That’s been really interesting, some good criticism.

I was away on holidays last week, so I didn’t… They trolled it pretty good, I think on Twitter. At some point, I think there’s a podcast where they’re making fun of me, but I’m not going to listen to that stuff. I muted most of it. I would imagine there’ll be some sort of response. I guess I’ll just take that as it comes. But maybe not. Who knows?

Geoff Kabaservice: I hope you’ll stay off of Twitter. It’s a bad place. Trolls tend to inhabit it. I haven’t heard much coming from Claremont, institutionally. I did see a piece by Steven Hayward on the Power Line blog, where his central point seemed to be to troll Bill Kristol and say, “What the Hell Happened to Bill Kristol? Is he even a conservative anymore in any meaningful sense?” And I think that’s, again, a fairly predictable line of argument. His criticism of you, as I recall…

Laura K. Field: Was that I had an affiliation with you guys.

Geoff Kabaservice: Although he calls it the Niskanen Institute, so take that for what it is. But he basically said, “She didn’t credit the point that I made back in 2016, when I actually first thought about Trump.” His argument there was that, “Yes, Trump has flaws, but he really represents the biggest threat to the administrative state that we have seen since the days of Reagan and Nixon. And we’ll take whatever flaws he has in order to have Trump combat political correctness and stand up for America and beat back that Deep State.” Do you have any response to that criticism?

Laura K. Field: I’m just of the view that that’s an extremely dangerous political calculation. And no matter what you think of the administrative state, it’s not worth it. I guess that’s just a genuine difference of opinion. I think that they are playing with really some of the worst impulses in human nature. So I think it’s extremely naive to think you can take this kind of thing and use it as a little weapon against the administrative state.

I don’t share… There is a genuine disagreement there because I don’t think the administrative state is nearly as dangerous as those guys obviously do. There’s just a genuine, serious disagreement there. I know a lot of serious people who agree, who think that the administrative state is extremely pernicious. And I think there are real problems with surveillance and big tech; I agree with a lot of those substantive concerns. But I also believe in strong government programs, and going back to protection for civil rights. I don’t know how they square a lot of this. You recall, Charles Kesler also in his book has the nerve to criticize conservatives for not coming up with a serious alternative to Obamacare. It’s just bizarre to me.

Geoff Kabaservice: I do think there’s an important distinction between the basically kind of reactionary conservatism you’re describing and the conservatism of Bill Kristol, which is about alternative programs that still aim at the betterment of society, using government as an instrument. Whereas I think the reactionary view is “It all needs to be blown up” — which is very profoundly unconservative.

Laura K. Field: “It needs to be blown up.” I guess we’re down back to state control, but it’s not clear that they have much appreciation for state action either, at the state level, though presumably they would. I think it’s very much a “blow it all up.” I guess just as… A conservatism that cannot deal with reality on the ground and that cannot accommodate the actual constitutional history of the country is a real problem. And I think a good conservative, I think of someone like Aristotle, who’s got a pretty conservative temperament as far as I can tell. And they seem to appreciate Aristotelian thinking. Someone like Aristotle says, “Let’s look at the world we’ve got. Let’s look at the different claims upon justice that people make.” 

They would look at America… I think Aristotle would look at America and say, “There are all these different contingents, there are all these different factions, there are all these different groups. And they make different claims upon us, and different claims to power and authority, and different claims on the division of wealth, and different claims upon civic virtue at all different kinds of levels.” I don’t think someone like Aristotle would say, “Let’s just blow that up and see what happens and see what comes along.” I think he would say, “Let’s take these things seriously. Let’s see where we can agree. Let’s try to combine these two constitutions we’ve inherited, in new ways and better ways.” That’s what I find so disturbing about their way of proceeding.

Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a real element of apocalyptism, catastrophization, and despair in a lot of the Claremont message. It’s partly the idea that “America as we know it is dead. The America that Ronald Reagan knew when he was growing up is no longer the America that we have. All of our traditions are so corrupted that we might as well just destroy them and start over.” I think that’s a very unpromising ground on which to build, to be honest.

Laura K. Field: And I think there’s a lot more though to work with. I think that they know a lot of the good things about America and the American founding. But they sort of refuse to… I think they have a pretty distorted view of Democrats, to say the least. They sort of refuse to see any patriotism among Democrats or any sincere conviction. And they see themselves as aggrieved and victimized. And I don’t think it’s warranted. I think a lot of what they feel is… I try to understand where they’re coming from, but I think it’s a real distortion. And it’s a misunderstanding of the country.

Geoff Kabaservice: I don’t think that all of the problems in modern conservatism trace back to the Claremont Institute by any means. But I do feel that one of the biggest problems with conservatism, whether defined by Trump or even people who preceded him, is that it’s hostile to governance and government at this point. Michael Pack was one of these Claremont alums who Trump brought into government, making him the head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees the Voice of America and other federally funded international broadcasters. And it was just a disaster.

He basically believed that everyone was plotting against him, found everyone to be disloyal, fired or forced the resignations of every official who was there. It was really the idea that to reverse the administrative state, if you simply try to destroy the agency of which you are head, you might succeed. And that to me is the opposite of what conservative government ought to be: providing a real alternative, but a functional alternative, to government by progressivism.

Laura K. Field: That’s such a fascinating example. I’ll have to look at it more closely. But it does seem like that’s kind of what they’ve got right now, is this idea that the best you can do is just sort of hijack everything. It’s just a really sad state of affairs.

Geoff Kabaservice: It just strikes me as a peculiar conclusion to come to at a time when the pandemic should have revealed how important effective government is.

Laura K. Field: It’s taking certain modern premises of freedom to a real extreme and sort of forgetting… When I think about this, I think of it in terms of political theory and the early modern effort to push back against totalitarian, religious states with this sort of low-but-solid ground that you referred to earlier. And so they thought, “Well, let’s have a very stripped-down, spare understanding of the purpose of government.” And you see that in Locke and Hobbes.

That then I think over time tips into a kind of libertarian rejection of governance, like a rejection of the idea that… Even in Locke there’s quite a big role for government. It’s always checked by the people’s revolutionary instincts. But you promote the good. There’s a lot there that I think Locke could tolerate. But this has tipped into something very resistant to any kind of authority and government, combined with an embrace of strong-man rule. So it’s kind of paradoxical and full of contradictions.

Geoff Kabaservice: Do you think there’s anything to the criticism that the flaws go back to Strauss himself? Because I remember coming across a book by Shadia Drury about Strauss and the American right. The claim of that book was that Strauss was an elitist, he had read this into American conservatism, that variety of conservatism fit very well with imperialism and militarism and Christian fundamentalism. And Strauss is actually really sort of standing for that esoteric reading you’re talking about, which can shade into actual deception of citizens by those in power — because the powerful people need to lead those people and the people need strong rulers to tell them what’s good for them.

Laura K. Field: That’s a hard question. Sure, I think so, even if… Strauss was pretty careful as writer and didn’t say all this in an obnoxious way. A lot of this is just part of the traditional political philosophy. You can blame Strauss, but it’s there in Plato.

Geoff Kabaservice: True.

Laura K. Field: There’s all sorts of… It’s there in a lot. I think that a serious attention to the history of political thought will take you to a lot of these places. But I still think there’s something real about the kind of intellectual disconnect between a lot of these people and the real world. I think that is very typical amongst Straussians. I mean, I’m subject to it too. I’m not trying to… I really am.

Everybody’s subject to their own perverse way of thinking, but maybe intellectuals more than others. I think there’s a strong streak of that in Straussians and a lot of conservatives, I guess maybe. It seems like the left is kind of more pragmatic in some respects and less caught up in sort of intellectual discourse and grand theories and grand narratives. And maybe that’s to the good in some respects. What do you think, Geoff?

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, it depends on whether you’re reading Jacobin or listening to Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck. It’s all about who actually has influence in which faction of the Democratic Party. But it’s an interesting notion. I think in some ways conservatism is going through some of the upheavals that liberalism went through in the 1960s. We’re seeing a real kind of repeat of that extremism and rejection of the past and rejection of establishments that it took the left a long time to get over. And the question is whether we’re going to go through it all on the right now. What are you thinking about writing in the future, Laura?

Laura K. Field: Well, I’ve got some sort of smaller things I’m thinking of writing, book reviews and stuff that I… I’m reading Jonathan Rauch’s book right now and I’m interested in that.

Geoff Kabaservice: I talked to him last week.

Laura K. Field: I should listen to it. Is it up yet?

Geoff Kabaservice: It’s up!

Laura K. Field: Okay. I’ll have to listen to that. I’m sort of interested in epistemology and this question of the moral valence of liberalism. I think that’s what I’m most deeply interested in right now. So I’m sort of toying with some different ideas about that. And sort of the moral awakening on the left — the “awokening” but also just sort of the willingness of the left now to engage in this idea of moral clarity and stuff that we’ve been seeing, I think what a lot of centrists would call the self-righteousness. I’d like to grapple with that.

Circling back to where we started, this idea of sort of neutrality liberalism… I’d like to do more writing about non-neutral liberalism but discussing the real parameters of the connection between morality and liberalism and how it’s sort of important to safeguard some of these norms of neutrality. But it really depends on the context. I think it’s really important to get a clear articulation of some of those issues if we’re going to really seriously deal with these massive political problems. Yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about, but we’ll see whether it comes into being or not.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, really looking forward to reading your future articles for The Bulwark, for Niskanen, and for other sites. Thank you so much for talking to me today, Laura.

Laura K. Field: Thank you, Geoff. Thank you.

Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at contact@niskanencenter.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.